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Van Bering Robinson


On the night of September 10, 1980, an armed black man robbed Kinney Shoe Store in Albuquerque, New Mexico. 36-year-old Phil Chacon, an off-duty police officer, was in the vicinity of the robbery and chased after the robber on his motorcycle. Two shots were fired from the robber’s car at approximately 8:15 p.m., killing Chacon.
 
Two days after Chacon’s murder, Van Bering Robinson and Reginald Walker, both 22-year-old black men, were arrested for the armed robbery and the murder of Chacon. However, the grand jury refused to indict either man and they were released. The police kept a close watch on both men, and Walker was arrested again a few weeks later, and a third time in February of 1981.
 
Following Walker’s arrest in February 1981, Robinson was also arrested again on charges unrelated to those for which Walker had been arrested. Walker then struck a deal with the State and agreed to testify against Robinson in the killing of Chacon, providing a formal statement implicating Robinson in early March 1981. In exchange for his cooperation, Walker agreed to plead guilty to conspiring with Robinson to plan the robbery. Robinson was indicted on March 12, 1981.
 
Robinson was tried for the felony murder of Chacon in May 1981 in San Bernalillo County, with the State seeking the death penalty. He was represented by attorney James Toulouse.
 
The evidence presented by the prosecution included the testimony of Brian Iwanski and Renee Gonzales, the two employees of Kinney’s Shoe Store who were robbed at gunpoint. When Iwanski was cross-examined by Toulouse, Iwanski adamantly stated that Robinson was not the robber. After this statement, the State attempted to impeach Iwanski’s credibility by suggesting that he had been responsible for embezzlement in the past, despite the lack of evidence of any criminal conviction.
 
Also testifying against Robinson was his stepbrother, 30-year-old Barry Lee Foster, who was himself facing the possibility of a long prison term before he agreed to testify. Foster testified that Robinson and Walker had borrowed his car, an Oldsmobile Delta, on the night of the killing and that Robinson had then asked Foster to hide a gun for him because he had just shot a man. Foster said he had refused to take the gun. A variety of guns and bullets had been found at Robinson’s residence, but none matched the bullets found in Chacon’s body.
 
Robinson had taken a polygraph exam prior to the trial, and polygraph examiner, James C. Wilson, testified that Robinson had lied when he indicated that he was not involved in Chacon’s murder.
 
During the trial, Reginald Walker broke his plea agreement and refused to testify against Robinson. Instead, Walker testified for the defense, stating that he and Robinson were working on a car on the night Chacon was killed and were not involved in the murder. Walker claimed that police had pressured him into previously making false statements regarding Robinson. No physical evidence was presented connecting Robinson to the crime.
 
20-year-old Dwight LaSalle VanZandt, a longtime friend of Robinson, testified that police had threatened him and offered him $5,000 and a change of identity if he would lie about Robinson’s involvement in Chacon’s shooting. VanZandt specifically named five police officers who he claimed had been involved in this attempted coercion. VanZandt was facing burglary charges at the time of his testimony.
 
The prosecution also offered the testimony of jailhouse informant Danny Lee Harvey, who had allegedly spent three hours talking with Robinson while they were incarcerated together. Harvey claimed that during this conversation, Robinson had confessed to killing Chacon. The defense spent significant time attacking the motives behind and reliability of Harvey’s testimony.
 
The defense offered several alibi witnesses who testified that had seen Walker and Robinson on the night of September 10, 1980 at times around the time of the shooting. Robinson took the stand in his own defense, testifying that he was at Walker’s apartment, working on a car with Walker, at the time Chacon was killed.
 
The jury deliberated for five days before returning a guilty verdict for Robinson on June 1, 1981. One juror sobbed as the verdict was read. Robinson was sentenced to life in prison.
 
On March 21, 1983, the Supreme Court of New Mexico reversed Robinson’s felony murder conviction on the basis that the trial court had erred in allowing key witness Brian Iwanski to be prejudicially cross-examined. The case was remanded back to the trial court.
 
Robinson’s retrial began in October 1983, and James Toulouse again represented him. Barry Lee Foster testified against Robinson, serving as the primary witness for the prosecution. Polygraph examiner James C. Wilson testified regarding the polygraph test administered prior to Robinson’s first trial. Brian Iwanski testified for the prosecution, providing details of the crime necessary to the prosecution’s case but still maintaining that Robinson was not the man who robbed the Kinney Shoe Store.
 
In Robinson’s defense, polygraph examiner Herman Romero testified that he disagreed with the scoring and methods employed by James C. Wilson in analyzing Robinson’s polygraph results. Romero found Robinson’s results to be inconclusive rather than indicative of deception.
 
The defense discussed a new witness, Enoch Jackson, who had reported to police that his car, a gray Buick, had been stolen the day before the robbery and shooting.
Although Jackson’s gray Buick matched witnesses’ descriptions of the getaway car, prosecutors and police had maintained that the car used to commit the crimes was Barry Lee Foster’s Oldsmobile Delta. Witness Jack Wessell, owner of a used car dealership, testified that the car he had seen fleeing the scene of the crime was a 1975 gray Buick. Wessell, who had been in the automobile business for nearly 40 years, said it was possible the car was an Oldsmobile but he believed it was a Buick.
 
On October 19, 1983, the jury acquitted Robinson.
 
Two years later, in October 1985, Robinson was awarded $75,000 plus attorney’s fees by a federal court jury that found Albuquerque Police Chief Eloy “Whitey” Hansen and three other police officers had deprived Robinson of his civil rights.
 
– Meghan Barrett Cousino
State:NM
County:Bernalillo
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Reported Crime Date:1980
Convicted:1981
Exonerated:1983
Sentence:Life
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:22
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct